Sailing on in preview of NFL 2014 and keeping the nautical theme, in early April it was the National Football Conference that stood for inspection, flagging those teams deemed sea-worthy of overtaking the good ship Seahawks for right to be called ruler of the NFCs.
This journey in prose will navigate the American Football Conference, descendent of the American Football League (AFL / ‘59) which, after having proven itself a viable enterprise, still, nonetheless, reached agreement (‘66) with its rival NFL to merge (‘70), and on migration of the Steelers, Colts and Browns became what we know today as the A.F.C.
Who can foretell if the winner of next January’s Lamar Hunt trophy (AFC) will again face the man o’ war that be the Seahawks, but suffice to say that until some scurvy dogs knock Seattle off their perch (elimination) and pirate away the George Halas (NFC), the champions of SB48 will rule the ocean green.
Denver Broncos (13-3)
Last we saw of the lordly one he was doing his best imitation of Earl Morrell, that losing QB of Super Bowl III, Earl Morrell. Morrell had done a pretty poor imitation of himself in that loss to the Jets in Miami (16-7), as he’d filled in so splendidly for his injured teammate Johnny Unitas thru most the ‘68 regular season on way to capturing the MVP.
When Russ Wilson seemed to know just where to aim in MetLife, Peyton was indecisive, and made poor decisions when he did decide. His near total inability to marshal the troops when chips were down might indicate Pey-dirt has not been in Denver long enough to have earned the full trust, respect of his Broncos teammates. But then the poor result should galvanize team spirit in 2014 and drive out any demons & doubts that linger.
Orange & blue saw big departures this O/S in Decker (NYJ), Moreno (MIA) and wily vet Bailey (NO). Deck-shoes hard to fill (1288 / 11td), but f/a Sanders (3y) will try. Denver D held their own in SB48, for a quarter, and build on #19 rank (356.yd / Trevathan: 105t-47a), w/All-Pro enhancers Aqib Talib (6y), Ware (3y) and Ward, while Ball & Hillman expect to carry the load sans Knowshon with draft or late f/a pick-ups a possibility.
And think on this: Morrell did bounce back to lead Colts to their first Super Bowl win 2 years later (SB5 v Dallas), driving Baltimore into FG range on final drive in substitute for Unitas and giving rookie Jim O’Brien (last straight-on sealer) his shot at immortality.
Plunder possibility: $$$½
New York Jets (8-8)
New additions “(Vick) & Decker” should smooth rough edges but more notable is March release of former starter Mark Sanchez. His departure ends what had been Jets most notable era since Parcells (‘98-99), or as G. Bishop writes, “end of an error (“With Release” / Bishop / SI.com / 3-22-14).” Some salt with your wound, Sir? Ugh.
Sanchez was a grade below elite but pissy, faux fans and dispirited media (“butt fumble”) made him whipping boy for NYJ woes. His INTs remained high and off-field promos raised eye-brows, but he always kept team focus, never lost composure (a la Dez / Sherm) and led his club to successive AFCTs where his play was very capable. Mark’s been tagged failure by most but if shoulder shows healthy he may yet find success again.
As for Michael, he’s a stop-gap until topper QB can be wrangled, that is, if he’s healthy, long enough to impact. His career is a shame, not just the jail-time but the mis-position. Speedy, ball-handy Mike could’ve been Percy Harvin before Mr. Electric, like Hornung’s switch-a-roo under Lombardi that proved profound. Ahh, the price of ego (See; Tebow).
Jets are a long-shot for admiralty in 2014 and recent signee Johnson (2y) will merely enhance an already fine run-tandem in younger Ivory (4.6) & Powell (4.0). But w/NFL’s Pollyanna Rex Ryan and usually stout defense (#11), 9-7 is a navigable destination.
Plunder possibility: $$¼
Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)
Offensively, KC ranked in bottom-half (21 / 337yd) but came in at #6 on points (26.9). No problem there. Signal-caller Alex Smith proved the steady hand as expected (23-7) and a playoff stalwart to boot, nearly pulling out a win in playoff thriller at Indy (L45-44), while Jamaal Charles was AFC’s version of Mr. Dynamo (1287-12td / 70r-7td).
Agency pick-up “Swagger” Walker (DT / Oak) beefs-up run-stuff and may balance out a trendy strategy that puts heavy reliance on red-dog, i.e., LB pass-rush (Houston & Hali) at expense of mid-field tackling & pass-defense (Johnson 97t / 4.5s). It proved effective early but caught injury bug, likely tripped second-half malaise and may help explain a pedestrian defensive rank (24) in yards allowed per game.
In the kicking game, ’12 Pro Bowler Colquitt, son of former Steelers punt-man Craig, had a fine year (46.9) while placer Succop must add distant to his repertoire: 40+; 7-12.
Andy Reid views year-1 in Kansas City as bitter sweet. It began dreamy (8-0), then hit rough water and barely made it into port (11-5). But while it was one ‘n done in the PS, “like Steve says, winning isn’t everything (Shirley Jackson).” Even in loss, Chiefs righted the ship, played with a renewed vigor and that portends well for 2014.
Plunder possibility: $$$¼
Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
If you’d said back in 2011 that a Ben Roethlisberger playing to potential (63.8 C% / 54-22 ratio), Troy Polamalu returning to form (‘13) and two-time Super coach Mike Tomlin at the helm, Pittsburgh would finish no better than .500 over the next two seasons, I’d have called you crazy. Crazy like a’ fox.
Since losing to GB in SB45 (31-25), Pittsburgh’s 3rd appearance in a six year span, the Steelers have been in devolution. Long before Tomlin pulled one of the dumbest stunts in memory last Thanksgiving by interfering w/on-field play, this proud organization has been taking on water. Age, roster miscues (everyone endures injuries) and the ebb & flow every profitable franchise will suffer are some reasons cited.
Though they won the AFC in the same season, I point to the game when Raiders Seymour sucker-punched Ben onto his back and yet suffered only nominal retaliation from players and their coach as the symbolic start of the downward spiral. Gotta’ man-up or get gone.
Slight upgrade in Moore pick-up per Cotchery exit, Mitchell shores up the back (D #13) and Blount will boost current run-group (3.7 avg / O #20 (337)). Ben is elite, his guard’s improved (09 / 50.S) and has more good years ahead, if House of Rooney still cares.
Plunder possibility: $$½
Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
If Atlanta was NFL’s biggest bust in 2013 it was only because the Ravens (8-8) still had glow of a champion that the reigning Super Bowl winner radiates ‘til January.
Like their division rival, Baltimore’s silver lining in a dark cloud of mediocrity was defense, coming in at #12 (yapg (335)), just ahead of PIT. New safety Stewart (1) has just 6 starts in the last 2y but pleased in 2011 (13g / 60t-17a), while handy-man Steve Smith is long-in-tooth with lowest yards (’13) in as many games going back to ‘01. But Steve’s sure, wily and brings competitive spirit that’s been waning since Ray exit.
Evidently, offensive creativity ain’t in the Harbaugh DNA as Jim’s QB hasn’t a clue in the RZ and John’s guys brought up rear at #29 (ypg). Joe Flacco was paid a mint then digressed (19-22 / 59%), OL cracked (48S) and run-men…barely did (Rice: 3.1; Pierce 2.9). Shore-up those two crews and who needs creativity? Kickers Koch (P / 46 ypp) & Tucker (PK / 40+,16-18) sailed, but penalties were poison on D: 126, 1196 yds (R1).
Plunder possibility: $$½
Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
Owner Jim Irsay’s personal life is in recovery but his sports venture is on-track. And that controversial call on Manning has proved quite wise, for both teams. Colts won their playoff shoot-out versus Chiefs (45-44), then got schooled by their elders in Foxborough.
The 2013 Colts are good example of why numbers are not all telling. Indy ranks in both offense (15-ypg) and defense (20-yapg) were unimpressive yet remain real “Captains Courageous” in hunt of NFL treasure. And with centerpiece stars like Andy Luck on offense and Freeman (93t-51a (5.5s)) & Bethea (89-35) on defense, the horizon looks bright.
Sophomore slump be damned as Luck looks the real deal. Andy’s seen dbl-digit wins and playoffs in his first two, C% up (54 > 60), INTs cut in half (9 > 18), GWDs grow (11) while Wayne’s injury (knee) probably reflects in pass-yards drop. Encouraging too are that Luck’s run-yardage totals (255 / 377) trend below 500 line, the rabbit test. Below it, shows pocket poise w/mobility; over 500y will red-flag fear flight, QB’s inability to read defense, poor rapport w/corps and a refusal to dictate the action from home.
New rosteree H. Nicks affords security (Wayne), Jones (DE) fills the front and Jackson (LB) roams mid-town. Trouble spot may remain the backfield. Trent didn’t cover (2.9 ypc), Brown (5.3) off to SD & Bradshaw needs more carries. Vinatieri (40+: 19-23) & McAfee cover.
Plunder possibility: $$$
Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
Bengalites must be muttering: ‘Not like we’re ungrateful, fellas, gettin’ in the playoffs and all, but howse ‘bout winning a game next time, for Paul Brown’s sake?’ Tigers have made the post-season four of last five and proved pretenders each. They played the Bolts close for a half last January, then the wheels came off (WC 27-10 (4 TOs)).
Fingers point at quarterback Andy Dalton and head coach Marvin Lewis. Funny how it’s the guys who get you there who take flack when the party ends early. Price of fame. Of course, Andy did have two INTs (v SD) and Marv did turn the man into a passing robot (29-51), opting for run-call just a mere 20 times (97yd).
But like the wise ones say, ‘if it works, don’t fix it.’ Making 4 in 5 playoffs, scripting schemes that both rank top-ten (O-R3 / 368 ypg; D-R3 (305 yapg / Burfict looks perfect (115t-62a)), will surely constitute ’working’ in most GM’s books. Bengals just need a tweak or two.
Fundamentals is a good starting place. Cincy’s offensive penalties ties 5th worst w/DEN (1000 yds) but the D-side kept clean (4th best (692)). Green-Ellis / Bernard duo will suffice but a bump-up in workload (ypc: GE (3.4) / B (4.1)) might take some load off Dalton (4293y) who ‘Got Guard (29S)’ but needed 33 TDs to outpace his fat 20 INTs.
Plunder possibility: $$$
New England Patriots (12-4)
Say the words quarterback league and it’s a good chance most listeners conjure an image of Tom Brady: money in the bank. He, along w/Peyton, has defined the NFL since early ‘00s. How much credit goes to Belichick, who needs who more, that’s the eternal debate. Was it Lombardi or Starr, Walsh or Montana, Jackson or Jordan making it all click?
One thing’s certain, Tom still clicks (4343y), though his OL could tighten (40sk) and a drop in C% (60+) and TDs (25-11) likely attributable to roster upheaval (Wes / Gronk / AH). As for Bill, I’m not so sure about him. He may’ve lost his edge, gotten a tad bored. But with that stony expression and relax-a-wear (sweats) it‘s hard to get good read.
Like the Pack (Rodgers), Patriots rely heavy on their main man, maybe too heavy. They will matriculate, that’s a given (R7 / 385y – 27.8p), but Belichick has been doing the cut & paste on defense for too long (R26 / 373 yapg (GB-R25)). In fairness, NE’s defense held their own at Mile High in PS loss (26-16) while O-side oddly sputtered (14 r-att / 57yd).
Pricey free-agent D. Revis (1y) looks an even swap for Talib (DEN), Browner’s potentiated (CB-3y) and LaFell (3y) key pick-up with Gronkowski’s body unreliable, while young leg-men Ridley (4.3 ypc), Bolden (4.9) & Vereen (4.7) will make-up for Blount’s exit.
As for those snooty New England teammates who can’t find it within their ability to show their leader Brady the camaraderie that he, everyone deserves (high-five snub), they should all know that we all know that each of them is entirely expendable.
Plunder possibility: $$$¼
San Diego Chargers (9-7)
Never say die: Chargers’ unofficial motto in 2013. After a home loss to Bengals in W13 things looked bleak. But Bolts went on a 4-game tear, then took revenge in taking wild card in Cincy and finally succumbed to AFC thoroughbred Broncos by 7 in Divisional.
It was a nifty Y1 for coach Mike McCoy who might’ve won COY (Rivera) if playoffs factored. Likewise for Phil Rivers who was given time (30sk) and played superb (69.5%, 32-11), while run-back Ryan Mathews finally stayed healthy and performed to potential (1255y / 4.4). With Don Brown signed (537 / 5.3), Woodhead (429 / 4.0) works insurance.
AP’s CPOY, San Diego mainstay Rivers is cut from same pocket-passer cloth as Cutler but better bang-immunity, starting every game for 8y straight: Jr. Iron-man. At 32 you’d expect QB fade but Phil’s a live-wire cut from Mickey Rooney cloth (we miss ya’ Mick (d. 4-6-14)). And with kindred spirit in Mike, who played QB and coached NFL offense since 2000 w/ specialty in QBs, the scoring synergy should stay energized (R5 / 393).
But Diego’s different on defense. Bolts reside in lower echelon (R23 / 366.yapg), only adequate in manufacturing opportunities, i.e., find few fumbles (15), so-so sacks (34) and few picks (11). But Weddle, Butler, Gilchrist, Marshall & Liuget are solid core.
Plunder possibility: $$$
Miami Dolphins (8-8)
If they‘re not using it in Flowery Branch (ATL), Dolphins might borrow that famous line of that spunky, never-say-die daughter of Atlanta, Scarlett O’Hara, as their 2014 motto: “After all, tomorrow, is another day.” Nobody needs a fresh outlook like the Fish.
Last season may’ve been a low point in history of this storied franchise (‘66). Starting with Martin’s exit & revelations, media firestorm and then the NFL inquiry, MIA still managed to break even in the upheaval that was Bully-gate. The fallout: Martin to 49ers, Incognito out (FA), coaches Turner, O’Neill and GM Ireland (“part ways”) all fired.
Surprisingly, Joe Philbin kept his post and claims new day has dawned in South Florida. Hope he’s right ‘cause the Sunshine State needs some blue sky on the NFL front for a change.
On the (+): MIA played clean in ‘13 w/few penalty-yards on D (R25 / 748y) and O-sides both (31 / 598); quality wins v. CIN, NE & IND; bright spots in Vernon (11.5s), Fields (49.py), Hartline (1016), Wallace, Wheeler & Jones. And in the all tumult, Ryan Tannehill held-up well (60 C%, 24-17) as OL was a sieve (58s), making All-Pro OT signee B. Albert good medicine. On the (-): overall defense (21R / 359.yapg) & offense (27 / 313.ypg) ranked fair-to-subpar while run-attack (Miller (4.0 / 177a) & Thomas (3.7 / 109a)) needs more touches and Sturgis (K) more touch (26-34 FGM).
Plunder possibility: $$½
“Rule (Se-at-tle, Seattle) Rule the Sea!”
Nobody repeats anymore, not defensive-minded ball-clubs anyway, not since the 60s. The Bears (’85), Ravens (’01), Buccaneers (’03), all one-year wonders.
Offensively, Seattle is a curious case. Their matriculatory scheme was no better than fair, ranking 18th in ‘13 (339.ypg), though they tied w/Green Bay in scoring (8 / 26 ppg), even while absorbing a League high 1183 yards in offensive penalties. A healthy Harvin adds scoring punch but then that’s like saying ‘a healthy Jay Cutler can take a title.’ Gulp.
Some say, it’s better to be lucky than good. Seahawks lucked-out in last NFC title tussle (1/19), snatching victory from jaw of defeat. Seasoned San Fran let a golden opportunity slip through their hands (23-17), leading for three quarters before losing their grip.
Weighing in Seattle’s favor, besides a vaunted defense, is that these Seahawks have been beating the odds habitually ever since Pete Carroll took the reigns in 2009.
Flying Jolly Roger of Contendership
Francis Drake, Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, Jean Lafitte, Rob Cofresi, Ben Hornigold (“once captured a ship for sole purpose of seizing a crew’s hats (Wikipedia)”):
Pirates and sea dogs to some, privateers and national heroes to others,. But all operated by one credo: fight for what is yours and take that which is not, by hook or by crook!
NFL runs a tight ship. It has no patience for privateers. But those teams which seek a precious cargo known as Lombardi silver must possess more than speed, strength and strategy, they must play with a pirate’s greed and a swashbuckler’s spirit.
NFL 2014-15 Preseason Rankings:
1) New Orleans Saints
2) Denver Broncos
3) Seattle Seahawks
4) New England Patriots
5) Kansas City Chiefs
6) Green Bay Packers
7) Cincinnati Bengals
9) San Diego Chargers
9) Atlanta Falcons
10) Chicago Bears
11) New York Giants
12) Indianapolis Colts
13) Arizona Cardinals
14) Baltimore Ravens
15) Philadelphia Eagles
16) Carolina Panthers
17) Miami Dolphins
18) San Francisco 49ers
19) Dallas Cowboys
20) Detroit Lions
21) Pittsburgh Steelers
22) New York Jets
NFL Hunch Line
Photo Credit: AFL: “fair use of historical image”
About the Author
Written by Steven Keys
A native of the old Northwest Territory (IL), my wife and I have lived in four Midwestern states and Arizona. Today we live in Duluth, Georgia. I have a history / legal background.